“Do not get the reputation for being a malcontent.” This is the fourth of six admonitions to myself as stated in my personal credo. A malcontent is someone who complains about how bad things are when they are, in fact, not bad at all. It’s an easy trap to fall into. People like to play the victim. America is a great country, but you would never know it listening to the whining on social media. Extremists on both sides paint a doom and gloom picture of America. The problem with that is such talk often leads to self-fulfilling prophecy. Enough of that talk will lead to a dismal future. Every time a democracy has collapsed, the failure began with the words of malcontents. Propaganda is a powerful tool. Demagogues who have perfected it, have had great success in turning decent people into a howling mob, bent on revolution where revolution is not warranted.
I can’t say I am a malcontent, but I am a pessimist, which is one step below. I’m not sure how I got this way, but I am a firm believer in Murphy’s Law: If anything bad can happen, it will, and at the worst possible moment. I sometime think Murphy was an optimist.
Okay, I’m not that bad. Actually, I consider myself an optimistic pessimist. Experience has taught me that things usually turn out better than the pessimist in me thinks they will. I have witnessed too much tragedy and have studied history enough to know that bad things happen to good people, and when scoundrels are given power, bad things can happen to whole populations.
I have learned that life goes better if I set my expectations as close to zero as possible. For me, the ancient Stoics got it right. Do the right thing. When things break against you, learn to shrug your shoulders rather than over re-act. Know that life’s highs and lows usually don’t last under normal circumstances. You’d be surprised at what you can survive. Be content with what you have. Envy no none. Be patient and tolerant. Tamp down the extremes.
The New Testament teaches pretty much the same thing. Paul wrote that he had learned to be content in all circumstances. Jesus taught us to not worry so much. Even the Laws of Moses taught us not to covet. Let each day take care of itself.
That all sounds good, but I also know that good fortune favors the prepared mind. It’s okay to be optimistic and hope for the best, but hoping does not improve the chances for success. Only well-thought out preparation can do that.
In William Faulkner’s story, “The Bear,” a boy is on his first hunt with the men. They are hunting bears, and one bear in particular. This bear is the bear of bears, mythical in its ferociousness and cunning. The men have been hunting this bear for years, with no success. The bear has become a metaphor for all that one can desire but cannot attain, the impossible dream. Perhaps not impossible, but that which requires total commitment and sacrifice to even get a shot at.
The boy, obsessed with the bear, decides to go after it alone. He seeks advice from Sam Fathers, a wise old man of both Indian and slave heritage. Sam Fathers gives him advice on how to get a shot at the bear. Then he says this, “The most important thing is to be afraid, but don’t be scared.”
At first read, this makes no sense, but like so much great literature, it requires many reads and much thought to find the wisdom. “Be afraid” means to know the danger you are up against. Know that if you mess up, you could be killed. Know the importance of being physically, intellectually , and emotionally prepared, because that’s the only thing that can save you and lead to success. Know that if you are not wary and careful out there in the woods by yourself – disaster.
“Don’t be scared” means give it a go. Don’t stay back in camp where it is safe. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. You’ll never get a shot at the bear if you don’t get out there and get after it. Great things do not happen to those who hang back and play it safe.
So the boy spends time preparing himself in all the ways he needs to. He goes after the bear and gets his shot. I won’t tell you how it all turns out. You can read it for yourself. Remember, you have to peel away the layers. Reading “The Bear” is like hunting the bear. It’s not an easy undertaking. “The Bear” was one of my favorite stories to teach.
My pessimism causes me to be prepared. I’ve seen too many bad things happen in my life. I know the pain and the sadness. I am not a fatalist. I know that taking precautions helps keep the misery away and increases my chances for success. I have learned that if it costs me nothing or very little to be careful, I may as well be careful.
My pessimism also causes me to be to be a bit of a malcontent. I see injustice everywhere. I see powerful people exploiting the weak. I see human predators. I see self-centered narcissists, and I get upset. I see the racism and the poverty and I get upset. As I get older, I see myself turning into an old curmudgeon. Picture a cross between the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah and Andy Rooney.
This is not to say I have no joy in my life. I have a loving family and great friends. I enjoy my hobbies: golf, travel, cards, camping, hunting, reading, movies, and crossword puzzles. I enjoy learning and teaching, writing and speaking. I am a child of God, saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. I enjoy being His disciple. I am far from the malcontent in Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet who “enjoys least what contents most.”
Right now, things are good, but I know the good times do not have to last. I have had loved ones die before their time. I know illness and injury can happen quickly. The democratic-republic I live in and love can turn into Russia in just a couple of election cycles. Substance abuse, crime, bigotry, income inequality, arrogance, avarice, hedonism, and hostility are on the rise. People are afraid of each other and what they are afraid of they want to destroy. People don’t value honor as much as they used to. So, yeah, I’m a pessimist.
I guess that is why I blog and teach and preach. All I have is words. I am not the kind to take up arms and riot or invade the U.S Capitol, and I do not approve of those who do. Words are my weapons in the war against all that is wrong. I believe there is a better angel inside each of us. If my words can boil that angel to the top (see my Face Book video), I will have done my part.